Maria’s Recovery Story

Name: Maria Stappenbeck

Where are you from: Bethel, Alaska

How long have you been sober? My sobriety date is October 20, 2018

What inspired you to find recovery? What inspired me to find recovery was a very long and painful battle against my inability to control my alcohol abuse. I wanted to be a sober person for years and never thought it was possible. I first had an alcoholic drink when I was 11 years old. I soon after became an alcoholic when I was a teenager. Alcohol helped my shy and introvert personality become someone I felt people would like.

Trauma is one of the biggest reasons we abuse alcohol or drugs, and I had a lot of trauma in my life. My brother died when I was 11 years old, when he was only 19. It was an alcohol related incident that involved his best friend killing him and then the best friend killed himself. This was something that spiraled my mother’s drinking into something that was unmanageable for her and our family. Growing up in a drinking family and a drinking community was the norm for Bethel, and it still is.

 I was a blackout drinker and I would try to get as drunk as I can, as fast as I can. This continued from my teens into my adult life. I got pregnant when I was 18 years old and by the time I was 20 I had two kids and was a single mother. At the time this was so hard, and I struggled through those first few years almost alone, but I’m forever thankful that those girls saved my life. If I didn’t become a young mother and had responsibilities, I believe I would’ve just died from an alcohol related incident.

My drinking picked back up when the kids were around 5 years old and I partied almost every night. There were so many times I would just want to find a babysitter because I was more focused on drinking. I felt I had been robbed of my young, wild, and free days and I only wanted to be given that back and drinking helped. My priorities were all wrong, but I still made sure my kids were safe and loved.

In 2008 my life was starting to feel a little better and I was training for a marathon. My mother was a really bad alcoholic and I could not be around her very often. At the time she was on a bad bender that was lasting a month or longer of non-stop drinking and she fell and hit her head. I picked her up from the hospital and they didn’t say anything was wrong with her, but I knew I needed to help her get sober. I kept her in my home with the mindset I’d get her better and wouldn’t let her go back to her house. She ended up passing away in her sleep the next night and I blamed myself forever. I believe she passed away due to alcohol withdrawals and I didn’t know that this was a lethal situation.

This traumatic event was something I didn’t know how to heal from, and it made my drinking bad. I didn’t want to be sober and feel the pain, I just wanted it to be numbed. A couple of years later I started a relationship with a fellow alcoholic who would drink as much as me and allow my destructive behavior. We were destructive, dangerous, and drunk for 5 years together. Blacking out on the weekends was normal and so was fighting. I wonder how no one got killed or hurt really bad those years.

After this relationship ended after a drunk incident, I spiraled even worse. I met a friend that was going through the same thing in her relationship and we became good drinking buddies. She ended up dying a few months later (alcohol related incident) and I blamed myself for that also because I wasn’t there for her. That was a devastating year, 2014. A lot of pain and trauma and drinking.

 Through all of this I managed to keep the same job for 12 years and I know it was by the grace of God the company I worked for was run by saints because they should have fired me so many times. It was a blessing they didn’t because that was the only thing keeping my head above water and keeping me alive. Around Christmas of that year I met my now husband and he was someone I didn’t know I needed. He didn’t drink before he started dating me, but we sure changed that and he drank every time we were together. He wasn’t a drinker like me though, he could stop and just go to bed. I was a drinker that would stay up all night if there was still alcohol, it fueled me.

I quit my good job and moved away with him to Florida. Not having responsibilities increased my drinking and erratic behavior and I gained 25 pounds in a few months. This added to the trauma and pain and shame, so it caused more drinking and more problems. The relationship was good, but it was also bad because of my behavior when I drank too much. I would go into these rages and get upset and say mean things to my husband. I would wake up and not remember and he would tell me all the embarrassing things I said and did. I was not used to this truth right in my face. I respected him a loved him so much I didn’t want to be this way. I would say sorry every time, and then after so many apologies it just didn’t mean anything. After one of these incidents in 2016 I woke up the next day and just wanted to die, I wanted death to take me away. There was no hope in me. We were both so sad and so depressed because we didn’t know how to stop the drinking and we didn’t know how to be healthy. He tried to quit, and we would stay sober for a couple of weeks at the most, and then we would find a reason to drink again. I worked from home for a couple of years and that was a nightmare of day drinking, putting off work till the monthly deadlines and drinking while working. I hated myself and I hated who I was to other people.

My relationship with my kids was nonexistent, they didn’t want anything to do with me. My marriage was suffering and so was my mental health. In the summer of 2018, we moved to Hawaii and thought this would be a good beginning and things might be better, but they just got worse. I wasn’t working, I was drinking and that was all I was good at doing. In October of 2018 a group of my close friends came to the island for a week and this is where the storm became unmanageable. After a week of blacking out every night, waking up and drinking, falling down drunk, and passing out on the beach randomly-my brain and body was done. The night before my friends left my husband was drinking a lot and he told me that he wasn’t happy, and he wanted to get out of the marriage. I remember in my drunken haze that I told him I would quit drinking, it was time. We had gotten to the bottom and my behavior was no longer acceptable for me or for everyone around me.

The next few days were hell as I tried to ween myself off the alcohol without dying. I was in so much pain mentally and physically that I couldn’t sleep or eat. My stomach was cramping up so bad, heart racing, and my hands shook so bad I couldn’t hold a fork to my mouth. My husband took me to the Emergency Room because it wasn’t getting better. While there the doctor yelled at me after I told her how much I had been drinking on a regular basis, before the girls-week I was downing about 10 beers or hard seltzers every night. During that last week I was drinking a lot of hard liquor and wine also on top of all this. I was usually never allowed to drink hard liquor anymore the last few years because that’s when things would go really bad. The doctor asked me “why?!! Why do you drink this much?!” I just cried and said, “I don’t know”. It felt so good to tell her how much I drank and that I had a problem. It was freedom.

My liver enzymes were high and my eyes were turning yellow. My health was suffering, and my body needed me to quit. For the last 5 years I dreamed about being a sober person. Every time I would think of something I wanted to do or the person I wanted to be my immediate realization was that I couldn’t because I was a drunk. I wanted to go back to school, I wanted to start a woodworking business, I wanted to be happy, but I couldn’t because I was so addicted to alcohol and it always ruined everything. I would miss out on events and family time because I was either drunk or hungover. That was something that controlled every day of every moment, the obsession over when can I have the next drink and how much can I get away with. The misery was unbearable and taking that first step was so huge for me because it meant that I had to get better, it was time. I started going to therapy soon after and the therapist told me something I knew- that I could never drink again. That kind of sealed the deal for me, telling her my story, crying, knowing my life was hell, and saying it all out loud to a stranger was eye-opening. I told my husband that I will never be able to drink again, and he was surprised and upset. He told me this later that he was upset that he couldn’t drink because I couldn’t, even though I didn’t tell him this. But he then realized that if he was upset that he couldn’t’ drink then that meant he also had a problem. The true test of love was that he quit drinking when I did, and we’ve stayed sober together though all of this. He told me a few months later that he would still be with me if I was still drinking, but I knew that I would never go back to that hell no matter what he thought or decided.

Going to therapy was key to my sobriety because I got to talk about my trauma and heal from all of the guilt and blame I put on myself. Talking to someone while sober and to a professional about my mothers’ death was life changing because she told me it wasn’t my fault. I had believed for 10 years that it was my fault. The things I drank over were so scary to open up about, but once I talked about it the need to want to drown in alcohol started to disappear. Healing trauma, no matter how big or small is key to finding peace.

What inspires you to stay sober?  What inspires me to stay sober is how much better my life is right now. When I was drinking I had unhealthy thoughts and reacted to those in unhealthy ways. It was like my brain could not process things in a normal or good way.

Now I have so much hope for the future, anything and everything is possible. In the beginning I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once or twice a week, read a lot of quit literature, listened to podcasts and ate a lot of ice cream.

Exercise was something that I tried to do before I quit, but after I quit it became my savior. To be able to exercise everyday with no hangover or fatigue was amazing and I lost 30 pounds. I had so much energy! My brain started to think clearly and I started to grow a self confidence I’ve never had.

My whole life I wasn’t confident, and I thought I could never be anyone because I was an alcoholic. That cloud of doubt being lifted has opened so much joy in my life. I started college the spring of 2019 and I’m finally getting a degree, something I thought I’d never be able to do. I started a woodworking business and my work has kept me busy and has given me so much happiness.

My relationships all around have improved drastically. My relationship with my daughters is so close and they respect me so much. Being an inspiration to them as they start adulthood and being there for them has been priceless. My marriage has grown, and we’ve gotten to finally look at and heal things that weren’t working in our relationship- instead of drinking it away we can fix these things now. One of the biggest things that kept me going was not wanting to disappoint my husband, my kids, and my dad. My father told me he was proud of me for being sober and that was a huge deal. Gaining and keeping trust was a big deal to me. I knew if I relapsed I couldn’t trust myself, and they would no longer trust me.

I became a Grandma at the end of 2019 and I am so grateful that I am sober for him. If I was still drinking I would not trust myself around him and that would be heartbreaking because he is amazing. My friendships have stayed strong and they are no longer alcohol filled conversations, they are real. I’ve found a peace that I’ve never felt before. A peace I chased with drinking but never found no matter how many drinks I had. I enjoy moments without obsessing when I can have the next drink. Nothing stops me from doing what I want to do anymore. No more anxiety after quitting drinking. I had such bad anxiety my stomach would physically hurt because I was anxious over everything. No more sudden flashes of anger or depression because I can process these better. This issue is not just how I “think” it was my brain chemistry. I didn’t know how much alcohol messes with the chemistry of your brain and how it works, how your process feelings are so damaged because of the alcohol abuse. Healing from that is like opening up a new universe.

Biggest surprise or best part of sobriety you weren’t expecting?  The biggest surprise about being sober is the invincibility I have now. I feel like I can do anything I put my mind to and any dream is possible. Gaining this self-confidence and self-worth makes a strong backbone to success and happiness.

Advice for those contemplating recovery? I have so much advice for those contemplating recovery that I could go on all day. One of the things that rings most true is that if you want to stay sober bad enough there will be a way and you will find it. Surrendering to being a sober person is so hard to do, I didn’t want to for years. I didn’t want to say the words out loud that everyone already knew because I knew that it would prove I had a problem. And when you say you have a problem that puts a huge microscope on your bad behavior. But finally admitting it was the most freeing thing I’ve ever felt. It the first step in AA- admit you are powerless over alcohol. Its sounds like a simple thing but saying it to others is difficult.

If you have a problem with alcohol or alcohol is causing problems in your life, please try to stay sober for 6 months. After 6 months is when the hold or control of alcohol lifted from my brain. Its’ such a powerful drug(alcohol) that even when you want to quit your brain won’t let you. But the longer you don’t drink the easier it is to say no and to see that your life is a million times better. My life is too good to ruin now, I have more happiness and peace than I’ve ever had. Alcohol promised these things but always ruined it.

The first year of sobriety is testing and hard, but I’ve grown so much as a person that there is no way I could go back- even for a day. Looking back I can’t believe I lived that nightmare for so long, but I’m happy that I made it out alive to tell the tale. The work will never end. I work on my sobriety every day like it is my job. If I don’t then I worry that I will slip because there is always that threat. If you want recovery look to heal your trauma and look to make your mental and physical health better. The rewards and joys of being sober are beyond my understanding.